Land Board study finds rules stricter on trust lands
HELENA - A new report for the state Land Board leaves the prospects for wind-power development on state school land unclear.
Prepared by the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, the report said developers prefer building such projects on private land because environmental requirements are less stringent.
Jeanne Fairbanks, the agency's special uses section supervisor from Missoula, said a big wild card in choosing wind-power sites is whether a location has access to transmission lines with enough unused capacity to handle additional electricity.
Information is difficult to get on what lines qualify and whether they cross state lands that would be attractive for wind turbines, she said.
However, department Director Bud Clinch said he believes the abundance of state-owned land - 5.2 million acres - makes it a good bet for a wind-power project.
"There's still a pretty high percentage chance that we'll be involved," he said.
Clinch noted that Fairbanks found some of the four finalists competing to build a wind-power project for Montana Power Co. have targeted state land.
Claudia Rapkoch, spokeswoman for the Butte-based utility, said some proposed sites are on state land, but the company is not sure how many or where. Montana Power is expected to sign a contract with one or more of the bidders by mid-August, she said.
Clinch also said that, although complying with environmental laws for a site on state land is more difficult, the last Legislature offered tax breaks for those companies that choose such locations, and that incentive could help.
At a time when electricity prices have soared in the West, wind power has become an increasingly popular alternative energy source. Having towers and turbines on state land would benefit schools because revenue from leases goes to public education.
Montana has no shortage of wind, Fairbanks told the board. The question is where wind is strong and constant enough to provide a practical site for generators, she said.
Winds sweeping down the east slope of the Rockies offer the best source of power, Fairbanks said. They average 10 mph to 16 mph from Livingston to Big Timber, and at Browning, East Glacier, Cut Bank, upper Musselshell Valley, Harlowton, Judith Gap, Whitehall and from Cascade to Great Falls.
Fairbanks said the major environmental concern with wind-power projects - on public or private land - is birds. The tall towers and blades needed to catch the wind can interfere with migratory bird routes and disrupt crucial habitat such as wetlands, she said.
Janet Ellis of the Montana Chapter of the Audubon Society said towers often become attractive perches for raptors who are killed by the whirling blades when they dive for prey.
Additional concerns for projects on state land are noise and the visual effect of the towers on the landscape, Fairbanks said.